Summary and book reviews of The Family Tree by Carole Cadwalladr

The Family Tree

By Carole Cadwalladr

The Family Tree
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2005,
    416 pages.
    Paperback: Nov 2005,
    416 pages.

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Book Summary

Does having blue eyes mean you will clean compulsively? If you collect things, will you inherit bad skin? Where does science stop and the emotional begin? What is the truth of who we are? These questions lie at the heart of Carole Cadwalladr's compelling debut novel, The Family Tree

When Rebecca Monroe—married to Alistair, a scientist who doesn't believe in fate, but rather genetic disposition—discovers that she is pregnant, she begins to question what makes us who we are and whether her own precarious family history will play a role in her future.

For Rebecca, the wry and observant narrator of The Family Tree, simple things said over breakfast take on greater meaning: a home-improvement project foreshadows darker things to come; the color of one's eyes, the slope of a forehead are all missing pieces to the truth behind the family tree.

Moving the story forward are a deeply loving mother who hangs the world on the making of the holiday trifle; an aging hippie aunt who may or may not be having an affair; a sister with an overactive imagination; and a spirited grandmother whose lifelong secret could shake the foundation of the entire family.

At once nostalgic and refreshingly original, The Family Tree is a sophisticated story of one woman and the generations of women who came before her and whose legacy shaped her life and its emotional landscape.

Part One

beginning n 1 : time at which anything begins; source; origin
1.1 : fate n 1 : power predetermining events unalterably from eternity
2 : what is destined to happen
3 : doomed to destruction

The caravan entered our lives like Fate. Although from the outside, it looked like a Winnebago.

It appeared one morning in our driveway, an alien spaceship from a planet more exciting than our own. Inside, there was a miniature stove with an eye-level grill, and a fridge that was pretending to be a cupboard. Tiffany and I, experienced sniffers of nail-polish remover, stood on the threshold and inhaled the slightly toxic smell of new upholstery and expectation. I was eight years old and susceptible to the idea that technology could change your life. They said so in the TV ads.

I have a photograph from that day. We're standing in the driveway, smiling, certain, shoulders locked together in a single row. It reminds me of ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Rebecca Monroe would like to think we're all products of our own personal histories, i.e. what we've experienced. Her husband Alistair thinks we're all products of our family's history, a result of genetic traits passed down from generation to generation. It's an old argument, nurture vs. nature, and something that Alistair studies for a living as a behavioral geneticist. But for Rebecca, there's more at stake in the argument than a career or dissertation: Rebecca's family tree has one branch fewer than most. Her grandmother and grandfather were first cousins in a loveless but childbearing marriage. And her mother killed herself after years of suffering bipolar disorder and the ...
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Media Reviews
Entertainment Weekly

[A] loving, spot-on portrayal of a late 1970s childhood.... Cadwalladr has produced an ambitious book, packed with funny, likeable characters.... [A] lively, rangy, and thoroughly entertaining novel.

Library Journal - Barbara Love

Genetic predisposition figures prominently in this tender coming-of-age novel in which Rebecca Monroe, a Welsh sociologist, struggles to understand her troubled family history.... [a] promising debut, which effortlessly combines pathos and humor.

Booklist - Misha Stone

This strong and plucky debut, reminiscent of Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995), marks the arrival of a singular novelist who uses wit, insight, and even cultural criticism to explore one young woman's understanding of her family and herself.

Publishers Weekly

The ease with which British journalist Cadwalladr spins three generational tales in her debut is outdone only by the grace and wit with which she delivers each one. This book rolls the pleasures of Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith and David Sedaris into an as told to by Margaret Mead package that's sure to find a large and very enthusiastic audience.

Kirkus Reviews

British journalist Cadwalladr's debut, structured as a graduate thesis on pop culture in late-20th- century Britain, explores three generations of family relationships, beginning in WWII.... Miraculously, The Family Tree never falls into melodrama. Despite Rebecca's light, self-mocking tone, this isn't chick-lit. It's women's literature ready to take on the men-and a wonderful read at that.

Author Blurb Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane
Funny, fast and fresh...Hats off to Carole Cadwalladr. It was such a pleasure to read...A rare find.

Author Blurb Anna Maxted, author of Running in Heels, Getting Over It and Being Committed
This is a jewel of a book. I loved it. Carol Cadwalladr is remarkably talented, and a very funny writer.

Author Blurb Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Blank Slate and How the Mind Works
Poignant and intelligent. Vivid characters engage the reader to ponder the timeless themes of fate and choice.

Author Blurb Emily Barr, author of Backpack
Carole Cadwalladr has written a wonderful novel that is hilarious and tragic at the same time.

Author Blurb Margaret Forster, author of Lady's Maid and Hidden Lives
A real delight to read...such a delicacy of touch...very funny...hugely enjoyable.

Author Blurb Jacquelyn Mitchard
The very cleverness of its central motif--a dissertation on the expression of genetic traits, mostly through the evidence of prime-time soap opera--makes The Family Tree a notable debut. Carole Cadwalladr takes the reader deep under the skin of one unhappy, even cursed and yet utterly ordinary family. Through the eyes of a character so honest and doggedly hopeful, we see our own selves.

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